FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
April 5, 2006
Contact: Phillip G. Steck, Attorney
(Cooper Erving & Savage LLP)
FORMER ATHLETIC DIRECTOR PREVAILS ON APPEAL OF FIRST AMENDMENT LAWSUIT AGAINST AVERILL PARK SCHOOL DISTRICT
Lou Cioffi served as Athletic Director of Averill Park from 1981 to 2002. The School District terminated his employment, claiming it was saving money by combining his position with another. Cioffi was the only person who lost his job as a result of the alleged reorganization.
In July, 2002, Cioffi filed a lawsuit against the School District in the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York. Cioffi asserted that he had been fired for complaining to the School Board concerning how the School District had handled a severe hazing incident which occurred in the football locker room.
The hazing incident was widely reported in both the print and TV media. Cioffi was one of the administrators who uncovered the hazing incident. For years, he had warned against certain practices in the football program, including use of performance enhancing substances.
The District Court dismissed the case but, today, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reinstated the lawsuit. The Second Circuit held that Cioffi was exercising his right to free speech guaranteed by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. “In both the letter and press conference, plaintiff addresses two issues that are of paramount interest to a community faced with a hazing incident in its schools: first, how the School District allowed such an incident to occur and, second, how the School District conducted its investigation into the hazing. . . . As painful and embarrassing at it may be to defendants, the public has a pointed interest in obtaining information not only about the fact of the hazing, but also the possible administrative failures that allowed it to occur.” The Second Circuit noted that Cioffi’s speech in no way disrupted the school’s operation.
The Court of Appeals also rejected the School District’s claim that its motivation for eliminating Cioffi’s position was financial. “[B]ased on the facts viewed most favorable to Cioffi, the Board decided to abolish his job ‘despite the fact there was no real fiscal crisis’ . . . . These facts call into question the allegation that the School District had in fact achieved a net savings by abolishing Cioffi’s position.”
Cioffi’s attorney, Phil Steck, said: “I am thrilled for Lou; he really feels vindicated. The District tried to make him a scapegoat when he acted at all times in the best interest of the health and safety of students.” Steck also thanked his co-counsel on the appeal, Tom Marcelle, for his assistance.
The full text of the decision is available at http://www.ca2.uscourts.gov/.